Columns

Pointed View: Regulate Netflix

Never accept the argument that we artists should just be glad for what we are given.

Illustration by Dave Donald

As a documentary and independent feature filmmaker, I have followed the many meagre paths to investment. I have laboured for years on projects, travelled great distances and hit up on every friend I have for as many favours as I could. I have even risked my life by standing on the edge of highly radioactive nuclear bomb craters in northeastern Kazakhstan, or by spending too much time in helicopters veering a few feet off the water down narrow river valleys.

When I read Barri Cohen argue that Canadian filmmakers need to fight “any attempt to impose regulation on the Netflixes of the world” in the last issue of POV, I was immediately sympathetic, but I also flinched.

I agree with Cohen’s view that we need more players interested in purchasing and showing Canadian content. But we also need them to invest in the making of that content.

Here’s the thing about Netflix; when we knock on their door, the offer is staggeringly low. We are told this is what the marketplace can afford. The marketplace for Netflix includes 13.8 million subscribers outside of the U.S. According to its CEO Reed Hastings, the subscriber list is growing at 78 per cent, year over year. They are actively planning further global expansion and in their last quarter reported $1.34 billion in earnings.

Netflix apparently makes about $38 million in Canada. Because they do not publish or answer questions related to acquisitions, what Netflix pays to filmmakers is herein only gleaned anecdotally: the number ranges between $1,500 and $12,000—a flat fee that is dependent on several variables.

Netflix builds its success around gaining heaps of subscribers who are drawn in by low fees, a few great self-produced series and a whole lot of commercial-free choices. By accepting a few dollars and increasing that number of choices, the filmmaker helps build the Netflix brand and its large profits.

This model asks that we resign ourselves to the often-quoted argument that, since the great economic collapse of 2008, in a world of so many choices on so many non-traditional platforms, there just isn’t the money to invest in the making of films.

But funds do already exist within our domestic system, though they are presently directed to other interests. On that front, we should exhort the CRTC to move quickly in shifting its focus toward the production of feature films and feature documentaries in Canada, while planning for the future of media consumption here and abroad. And even more funds would exist if a player like Netflix antes up.

I fully agree when Cohen notes that the Canadian system is a mess because large, culturally unresponsive media giants like Rogers and Bell find ways to circle around CRTC regulations and cry foul over the invasion of Netflix. The networks are calling for Netflix to be subjected to the same rules under which they operate, while simultaneously arguing that these rules should be loosened for everyone. They cite the borderless nature of the Internet as the reason regulation no longer works, while finding ways to charge for content in this borderless world. Put simply, our position should be: if it can be monetized, it can be regulated, and this is especially important in view of Canada’s broader cultural mission.

Netflix deserves regulating, an issue the company is now facing and attempting to sidestep in France. Of course, it will argue that paying more for content will make the company less profitable and therefore unable to compete. We can all imagine the possibilities if, in its last quarter, $340 million went toward the content makers and Netflix kept the other $1 billion.

Never accept the argument that we artists should just be glad for what we are given.

Read the column by Barri Cohen that inspired this piece here.